Brighton Fringe 2012
‘White Rabbit Red Rabbit’ arrives at the Nightingale as just a text. There are no directions other than instructions to the (single) actor from within the script, and the actor does the piece ‘cold’, completely without rehearsal. It’s an allegorical story of rabbits, symbolising the treatment of women and of middle-class intellectuals under the Islamic Republic of Iran. It’s also about our own personal responsibility for events. The author can’t leave Iran, but his text uses his Actor to create a virtual presence, and to manipulate his audience almost as if the author himself was in the room.
On an almost bare black stage an actor takes a script from an envelope and begins to perform the author’s words. He tells a kind of Aesop’s Fable about a rabbit’s visit to a theatre, and how the rabbit has to cover her ears with a red scarf. Later he tells us about his uncle’s experiments in conditioning rabbits to attack the one who is different or more successful, and how that behaviour persists even when the original stimulus is removed – "See how the past makes the future". He gets audience members on to the stage to participate in performing these stories.
In parallel with this he sets up a potential suicide arrangement, whereby the actor might end up drinking a lethal dose of poison, and the audience must make choices which determine the outcome. At this level it might almost be a piece by Brecht, with big themes and minimal staging – table, chair, ladder and a couple of glasses (for the poison). But there’s another level entirely.
The author talks directly to us through his Actor – "My name is Nassim Soleimanpour. My blood type is O positive. I am 168 cm tall and I weigh 76 Kg. I have black hair. My eyes are bluish-green. I am very hairy, like a piece of chewing gum on the floor of a barbershop". He’s funny too.
We can visualise him, and he is trying to imagine us, and the venue – "You are my future, but where are you?". At one point he gets his Actor to mention " the beautiful woman at the back who will smile if you look at her", and in his next sentence he continues – "now all the women at the back are smiling". It’s as if he really was there in the room with us, but as he says – "you can exit the theatre, but I will remain among these sentences. It’s the best place to live for a writer in my situation".
It’s an eerie sensation. Nassim Soleimanpour remains in Iran, but his presence hovers over the stage and it feels like he’s here with us now. At one point his Actor gets an audience member to perform, and Nassim tells them – "I actually made someone make you do something". It’s a kind of tele-presence, and I couldn’t help thinking of the remotely controlled drones hovering over Iraq and Afghanistan, their pilots hundreds or thousands of miles away, except that Nassim achieves an equivalent result with vastly less technology. Surely that’s a testament to the power of theatre and of the written word.
So how does White Rabbit, Red Rabbit work as performance? Our actor, Alister O’Loughlin, is one of seven performing this piece at the Nightingale, a different actor each night so as to come to the text completely fresh. A tall, almost shaven-headed figure, with a very mobile face and quick eyes and hand gestures, he was good at working the audience and getting participation, and at times it felt a bit like stand-up comedy. I suspect Alister may have done some. The staging is stark, with simple white furniture standing out against the black stage. Neutral white lighting too – nothing to distract from the power of the words.
I think this is quite deliberate. The effectiveness of the piece comes from the mental picture we build up of Nassim Soleimanpour and, rather like radio drama, we construct that best in our own heads, without the distractions of cluttered sets and lots of colour. I was told afterwards that there was no Nightingale director for the production, as all the instructions for staging are contained within the script, mostly as directions from the writer to the actor. Rather like a seed that can germinate and produce a plant wherever it finds suitable conditions. As Peter Brook said – "All you need for theatre is an empty space".
Any piece of writing by an Iranian dissident comes freighted with political, religious and moral baggage, and I suspect that many of us went to see ‘White Rabbit, Red Rabbit’ hoping to gain some insights into that country from a younger perspective. What I was not expecting was the tangible presence of the writer. We laughed, not just at his jokes, but because it felt like he was in the room with us, telling them. We also got a sharp lesson in personal responsibility. "If you are a passing viewer of this suicide, you are more of a sinner than me" says Nassim, and when, near the end, the actor might have drunk poison, a few people called out "No, Don’t!". But, significantly, they didn’t call out before he drained the glass. As I didn’t get up and kick the glasses over, preventing any possible suicide. I still worry about that, and several audience members I talked to afterwards did too.
To sum up, it was a stunning piece of theatre, thought-provoking and morally unsettling. It’s a wonderful testament to the power of words to transcend cultures and borders. It fully deserves five stars.